Everyone knows about the ice cream.
Blue Bell Creameries, headquartered in Brenham, Texas, churns out millions of gallons of ice cream every year, and fans flock there to see it roll off the production line. But add art galleries, shopping, music, restaurants and live entertainment to the list of reasons to visit this small town, located about halfway between Austin and Houston.
Shopping, art and more in downtown Brenham
I spent a recent rainy day strolling the bustling downtown district, where I admired colorful murals, ate an authentic Cubano sandwich and visited with the owners of a downtown business called Ballad of the Bird Dog, where you can sip coffee while you peruse racks of Howler Brothers shirts, high-end shaving supplies and turquoise jewelry.
“It’s really everything we use,” says Jared Anderson, who opened the shop with his wife, Catherine, in 2018. “It’s our personality on display.”
The Andersons first opened in a small alley location. Within a year they moved to their current space, with wooden floors and a hipster vibe. Now they’re outgrowing it, too — they’re preparing to move to an even larger building just down the street, which they are now renovating.
I met two of the couple’s namesake bird dogs — Rye and Mack — when I wandered in. You can grab a cup of specialty Mescalito Coffee, the result of a partnership with Houston-based Tenfold Coffee or, on occasion, get a haircut while perched in an antique barber chair when the shop hosts one of its pop-up barbershops.
The Andersons say they decided to build their life here, where they also operate the 1844 Liquor Market, because of the sense of community they discovered while visiting.
“I go back to the charm of the city it has good energy,” Jered Anderson says. “And there’s something neat about the bones — the old buildings — of the town.”
He’s right about that. I discovered shops and restaurants clustered around the Courthouse Square, where people gather every Saturday in July to hear live music during the Hot Nights Cool Tunes concert series. The city also hosts Maifest each spring, to honor its German heritage. And every October, a new mural appears downtown during the annual Texas Arts & Music Festival.
Murals on nearly every street
Even if you miss the festival, you can see the murals — nearly two dozen of them at last count — any day on raw brick walls and buildings everywhere you look. Look for a pair of armadillos, giant blue owls and blues musician Blind Willie Johnson. (Check out this map to help you find all of them.)
Other downtown draws? The antique carousel in Fireman’s Park, the Brenham Fire Museum, Unity Theatre, where you can catch a professional production, and the oldest furniture store in Texas, Hermann Furniture. And stop by the Brazos Valley Brewing Company, which opened in 2014, to sample some of the 24 brews on tap.
After admiring murals for a while, I ducked into Las Americas Latin Cuisine, 301 South St. Charles, where I ordered a Cubano sandwich (marinated pork, ham and Swiss cheese on a chewy roll) and sweet potato fries, and sipped tea while I drip dried from the rain. The menu also includes ceviche, pupusas, churrasco and other South American favorites.
Then I aimed my car for Blue Bell Creameries.
Indulge in Brenham’s famous ice cream
The factory no longer gives guided tours, but you can drop by the Visitor’s Center to get a paper soda jerk hat and check out exhibits that tell the story of the company’s start in 1907 to its position today as one of the largest ice cream manufacturers in the United States.
On the creamery’s observation deck, you can watch packages of ice cream roll down conveyor belts and machines pump out ice cream sandwiches at the rate of 180 per minute. Blue Bell’s best-selling flavors are homemade vanilla, Dutch chocolate, the Great Divide and Cookies ‘n Cream. Inspiration for new ones comes directly from consumers, although you probably won’t see a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos flavor anytime soon, despite lobbying from some of Blue Bell’s younger fans.
After watching for a while, I headed to the parlour for a Texas-sized scoop of peach ice cream. There’s also a gift shop, which sells everything from ice cream scoops to Official Taste Tester T-shirts.
“The value of this is amazing,” says marketing director Joe Robertson. “You can come here and not spend anything, or get a Texas-sized scoop of ice cream for just $1.”
More to see around Washington County
Rain foiled my plan to visit the Antique Rose Emporium, about 15 minutes northeast of Brenham. A few years ago, I sniffed my way through 8 acres of roses there, some grown from cuttings that date back hundreds of years. There’s also a nursery where you can buy plants.
Other nearby attractions? Washington County is ground zero for Texas history. Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed on March 2, 1836, is located about 20 miles northeast of Brenham. The Star of the Republic Museum there is a must-do for all Texans, native or otherwise.
And in Burton, 8 miles west of Brenham, you can tour an old cotton gin at the Texas Cotton Gin Museum. The gin, dubbed Lady B, has long since ceased operation, but for decades, farmers lined up their wagons to the background music of the rhythmic thump of her 32,000-pound engine. Tours are offered Tuesday through Saturday, and a festival takes place each April.